Simulating the Sacred: Theodore Strehlow’s Songs of Central Australia (1971)
It may be impossible to reconstruct what it meant for the Arrernte people of Central Australia to have the Bible translated into their language. The continuing practice of Christianity among the Arrernte shows just how powerful this wealth of stories was for this remote community. This conversion experience was reciprocated by a whitefella and the son of the Bible translator, Theodor Strehlow, who worked on converting the song-cycles of the Arrernte into English. These are not so much translations as conversions, as Strehlow, much to the annoyance of later anthropologists, rendered them into a poetry of rhythm and cadence influenced by Greek and Norse myth. In doing so, Strehlow wanted to simulate his own conversion experience, his own experience of this desert people and their lives, and to do so he was forced to turn to that which simulates the sacred in Western culture, in the language of poetry and literature. In reading Strehlow’s Songs of Central Australia (1971), we might begin to approach the conversion that took place in the desert of Central Australia, and begin to reconstruct the event of religious imperialism.
Revenant Revelation: Reading the Archive in Carpenter’s Gothic
Encyclopaedic in its ambit, William Gaddis’s 1985 work, Carpenter’s Gothic, does as Derrida says all good literature should do, and ‘tries to say everything’. In this way, the novel functions as a textual ‘archive’, gathering its material from all manner of disparate sources, and making reference to the political, economic, and religious conditions of an America in the midst of the Reagan-era. In this paper, I will try to elucidate the type of archival labour that such literature engages in, and, with Carpenter’s Gothic as my guide, will seek to understand the specific deployment of the Bible within such a framework. Whether in the perversion of scriptural quotation, or the offering of skewed biblical allusions, the workings of Gaddis’s archive point towards a ‘decanonising’ of any ‘original’ biblical text, a questioning of all interpretive authority, and the collapse of literal and figurative signification. What are the wider implications of this archival hermeneutic? What can it reveal about American culture more generally? And what does it say about the Bible as an archive in and of itself?
Faith in our Leaders
On the rare occasions when public commentators delve into the relationship between religious and political commitments, the result is often naively determinist—‘He believes X so he does Y’. But such a striking distinction invites over-simplified analysis. The determinist approach bears little relationship to what we know about real political and religious behaviour, and extreme examples do little to challenge it.
In the UK at the beginning of the twenty-first century, one avowedly Christian Prime Minister succeeded another. Same party, similar traditions, and both claimed the Christian socialist mantle—but the transition marked a significant shift in the flavour of Labour politics.
Taking a case study of two closely politically-aligned leaders can help avoid the dangers of a ‘left wing / right wing’ oversimplification, and holds out the possibility of a finer-grained exploration of the relationship between religion and politics.
Suspicion and love
Central to the recent philosophical reactivation of Paul has been the argument that in our era of imperial sovereignty and advanced global capitalism the most appropriate politics is one of love. These attempts to reinvigorate progressive materialist politics are often characterised as a break with the perceived relativist tendencies of French philosophy. We must move, it is said, from the postmodern negativity of critique and disconnection to a new, positive politics of creativity and fraternity. Deconstructionist criticisms have insisted on the violent exclusions necessary to any such politics. This essay will argue that Foucault’s genealogy of modern biopolitics and governmentality as a Christianisation-in-depth demonstrates its suffocating history and contemporary risks. Only through attention to the dangers of the Christian-secular dispositif could a politics of love be articulated that might unravel, rather than intensify, the grid of power relations.
Job’s Body in Pain: Reading Job 16:7-14 with Elaine Scarry
Saturated with pain and suffering, Job 16 is one of the most gruesome accounts of divine violence in the Hebrew Bible. In this paper, I consider the ways in which Elaine Scarry’s theory of pain, body, and voice is reflected in Job 16: 7-14. My analysis begins with two of Scarry’s central arguments: pain destroys language and narrows the sufferer’s focus onto her body and to be embodied is to be without power while to have voice is to have power.
In this passage, I see Scarry’s model reflected in Job’s diminished voice and in his accentuated bodily experience. By ignoring his claims to innocence, his friends and community diminish Job’s voice, while his obsession with his physical inflictions accentuates his own bodily experience.
At the same time, though embodied, Job is not wholly without power. Thus, Job extends Scarry’s thesis on the relationship between pain, body, and language. In this passage, I see Job showing his resistance to the source of his pain despite his apparent lack of voice. His nuanced body imagery gives him voice and enacts resistance. Rather than surrendering his body to God in battle, through his body imagery, Job articulates his resistance. While the marks of divine disfavor on Job’s body cause him to lose power in his community, in a subtle twist, Job uses his body to gain some agency.
The Vulnerable Body in the Wisdom Literature
This paper seeks to reconstruct a physiognomy of the human body by analysis of metaphorical language pertaining to the body. The body as an entity vulnerable to an array of detrimental pressures and afflictions is fundamental to much of the metaphorical language used in the Wisdom literature. Of primary concern is imagery in which the body is the vehicle for expressing what modern Western thought would deem mental processes. The issue of dualistic thinking thus becomes pertinent; the extent to which the historian can discard this binary structure of thought is problematic when approaching an ancient framework that often did not differentiate between “mental” and “physical”. To what extent does the body imagery in the Wisdom Literature envisage a cohesive state in which mental processes and mental states are consistent with bodily disease, degeneration or affliction (or their opposites, physical health, wholeness and well being)? Is it appropriate or even possible to talk of a Hebrew conception of pathology? The aim of this paper is to address these questions with a view to providing a model of Hebrew conceptions of bodily distress and their related mental processes, as seen in the Wisdom Literature.
Ideology, Intertextuality, and the David and Jonathan Narratives
The question of the ideologically determined use of word statistics to disambiguate the David and Jonathan narratives is the crux of the disagreement between Silvia Schroer and Thomas Staubli (1996; 2000) on the one hand, and Markus Zehnder (1998; 2007) on the other. There are several underlying issues here. What is the role of intertexts in the exegesis of biblical narratives whose construal is not only uncertain philologically, but whose meaning is disputed on ideological grounds? What is the role of the reader (cf. Eco 1979) in the disambiguation and construal of such texts? What is at stake in identifying limits to the interpretation of such texts (cf. Eco 1990)? This paper addresses the use of the Holiness Code in the study of the David and Jonathan narratives, the appeal to Homer’s Iliad and the Epic of Gilgámesh, and the excerption of material from the David and Jonathan narratives from Samuel and their insertion into an anthology of ‘gay’ literature (Fone 1998), and seeks to demonstrate that while some of these uses of intertexts are intended to close down the possibilities for interpreting the David and Jonathan narratives, they in fact necessarily contribute to the polyvalence of these narratives, a polyvalence that is not only rooted in the narrative art of the texts themselves, but that is organically related to their Rezeptionsgeschichte.
Sodomy, Sodomites and Same-Sex Marriage
In which I revisit Sodom and Gomorrah. Current debates around same sex marriage have shown up marriage as a site for heteronormativity. On the face of it, a male or a female couple getting married should not be a cause for panic, least of all invested with dire apocalyptic meaning as one finds on so many US Christian fundamentalist sites. Indeed, one of the arguments used in favour of same sex marriage is that it provides stability in sexual relationships. And, traditionally, marriage is one of the chief ways of regulating sexual activity, albeit primarily women’s sexual activity. Surely people who rail against gay “promiscuity” should be in favour of anything that would regulate and “stabilise” homosexual sexuality? However what if marriage is itself understood as a sign of heteronormativity, even a guarantee of heterosexuality itself? Same sex marriage then undermines this heterosexual, heteronormative guarantee? The underpinnings of this equation can be found in Reformation discourse on marriage, continence and sodomy. The Swiss Reformer, Heinrich Bullinger, in his Decades expounds a vision of a “continent” society, in which marriage is the lynchpin and set up against the apocalyptic evil of sodomy. The same themes recur in a 17th century execution sermon, The Cry of Sodom, from American New England by the Puritan minister and preacher, Samuel Danforth. The paper will explore the way both Bullinger and Danforth anticipate many of the themes in contemporary fundamentalist Christian discourse against same sex marriage.
A Woman is being Beaten and Maybe She Likes It? Approaching Song of Songs 5:2-7 with the Formidable Intellect of Andrea Dworkin
“Hurt me is not women’s speech. It is the speech imposed on women by pimps to cover the awful, condemning silence.” (Dworkin, ‘Against the Male Flood,’ 17).
“Splayed legs are silence. Being beaver, pussy, cunt, bunnies, pets – that is silence. ‘Hurt me, hurt me more’ is silence. And those that think it is speech have never heard a woman’s voice, not ever.” (Dworkin, ‘Pornography and Civil Rights,’ unpublished speech)
In the Song of Songs, the beating of the woman by the watchmen in 5:7 is generally understood to be either part of a dream or waking fantasy/nightmare (?) by the woman. Briefly, having risen to open the door to her beloved, she is stunned to find that he has left. She goes out searching for him, but the watchmen instead find, beat, bruise and strip her (Song 5:2-7). This has always been a problematic moment in the text, especially for those who wish the song to be understood as an egalitarian model of love between the sexes. However, according to Virginia Burrus’ and Stephen Moore’s (2003) recent work on the Song, developed especially in light of Roland Boer’s own pornographic x-egesis, the ‘beating’ scene might just subvert the oppressive reduction of woman to passive sexual partner, even victim, expressing instead woman’s desire for masochistic enjoyment.
Burrus and Moore do pay particular care to the obvious question of abuse. They insist, though, that the text is ambiguous:
…the line between the female masochist and the battered woman may continue to blur troublingly – as though it were actually impossible to distinguish in the
end between a woman whose rapist claims “she asks for it” and a woman who quite
literally asks for it, in the “contractual” context of s/m eroticism. (Burrus and Moore, 2003: 48-49)
Ultimately, they insist that this ambiguity in Song 5:2-7 – the difficulty of distinguishing ‘the pain-filled pleasure of a bottom and the pleasureless pain of a battered woman’ – is essential to maintain. The queer, often pornographic elements (possibilities?) of the text, drawn out implicitly in the writings of medieval allegorists and most explicitly in the work of Boer on the Song, destabilise the gender binary that thwarts women’s sexuality and subjectivity under the regime of heterosexuality, i.e. heteronormativity.
In this paper I want to ask two different, though related questions: ‘Does a woman’s desire for a “good beating” subvert or sustain patriarchal sexual order?’ and, ‘Is it possible to imagine a woman being beaten as a (philosophically) good thing, as something that enhances her humanity in a patriarchal social order?’ I shall offer some preliminary answers to these questions in conversation with Virginia Burrus, Stephen Moore, Roland Boer, Andrea Dworkin and the Song of Songs.
‘If I forget you’: a linguistic and stylistic analysis of Psalm 137
No other psalm defies the delineation of genre to the same extent as Ps 137. Hailed variously as a ‘touching lament’ and as a ‘bitter dirge’, many admirers of the work are hard-pressed to incorporate the final, somewhat dissonant verse into the same broad category. Rather than attempting to downplay this verse, as some scholars have done, this paper aims to demonstrate that it is crucial to an understanding of the psalm’s sitz im leben. It allows us to establish (albeit hesitantly) a date for composition, to remark with more surety upon the intended audience in their relationship with the author, and to confidently identify the central irony within the overall piece. It is this ironic element that says more about the author and his/her own identity as a Judean than would a hundred other psalms, written in more conventional fashion.
The secular state of the nation: sovereignty, secularism and law
What does it mean to say that the Australian state is a secular one? Secular law typically begins when a state has no religious competitor for authority. For this reason, it can be said that the Australian state is secular because its authority is derived from its own laws. What makes Australian law sovereign, the highest authority within the state, is its secularity. However, given Australia’s colonial heritage, it is not just the absence of religious authority, such as a state religion, that gives the state its secularity. The law’s foundations in colonial violence and the extinguishment of Indigenous sovereignty as a competing authority are also a crucial way in which secular Australian law can continue to operate as the sovereign authority within the state. In this paper, I will think through the ways legal and political characterizations of the law as secular work to disavow the state’s racialised foundations in colonial violence. How might secularism be re-thought of as not simply the operation of law without religion, but also, as complicit with the ways indigenous sovereignties in colonial states are negated?
Negri, Job and the Bible
This paper is drawn from an afterword to Antonio Negri’s The Labour of Job, the translation of which will appear with Duke University Press later this year. The book was written when Negri was in prison in Italy and then in exile in Paris and it is an effort to come to terms with revolutionary disappointment after his involvement with the far left in Italy. The text of Job was one way of dealing with that disappointment. In assessing Negri’s engagement with Job, three features stand out, at least for one trained in that arcane discipline of biblical criticism: radical homiletics, philosophical commentary and the politics of cosmogony. In this paper I explore each one as I follow the ropes that moor Negri’s The Labour of Job to the Bible and biblical criticism.
At the heart of the book is what I would like to call a radical homiletics. A discipline much neglected these days, homiletics is really the art of connecting a text like the Bible with the realities of everyday life, moving from the intricacies of textual analysis to the application to life. Negri’s homiletics is radical on two counts, one political, resting on Marx, and the other textual, reading Job as a pre-eminent document for our time. Job both describes our time and offers a way through the impasse of Left action.
Further, this book is a philosophical commentary. Caught in the rough ground between two camps – radical philosophy and biblical criticism – it is not conventional biblical criticism, if such a thing actually exists, with its characteristic assumptions, methods and skills. Is Negri then a lone philosopher making a foray into biblical analysis? Without a sense of what may be called the ‘mega-text’ of biblical criticism, is he bound to trip up? Not quite, for there is another patchwork tradition of what may be called philosophical exegesis or commentary. Some texts of the Bible – Genesis 1-11, the letters of Paul, Job – continue to call forth commentary from philosophers and sundry critics of other persuasions. Negri’s text falls in with this group.
Third, there is the strong organising axis of measure and immeasure, an axis I will soften and reshape into the tension between chaos and cosmogony. Indeed, (im)measure is the way Negri reinterprets that biblical opposition and he does so through the theme of the ‘creative ontology of labour’. I want to explore the political possibilities that this biblical theme offers Negri.